Tips for Development of the Remote Workforce from a Remote Leader

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David Rice

Working remotely

Remote work has been something of a journey for some companies as getting it started and ensuring employee productivity has been a priority. Now, as businesses ponder opening back up, they’re also considering leaving some employees to work remote full time.

For Darren Murph, Head of Remote for GitLab, engaging a remote workforce is his daily routine.

So we sat down with Murph, who will be speaking at our upcoming HR Tech North America Digital Summit, to discuss just what goes into creating a sustainable culture and ensuring the success of employees in an all remote setting.

HREN: From a technology perspective, there are obviously a lot of tools that companies can tap into to help support a remote workforce, but how do you go about refining it down to what you need and developing solutions that are a custom fit for your company?

DM: Before adding new tools, take a look at your current tool stack and ask yourself if you can use more features, or use them differently, to enable more asynchronous workflows

While functioning remotely, strip the tool stack down to a minimum. Google Docs, a company-wide chat tool (like Microsoft Teams or Slack), and Zoom are all you need to start. If your team needs access to internal systems through a VPN, ensure that everyone has easy access, and instructions on usage are clear.

Working well remotely requires writing things down. For companies who do not have an existing culture of documentation, this will prove to be the most difficult shift. Aim to funnel communication into as few places as possible to reduce silos and fragmentation. You'll want to proactively solve for mass confusion when it comes to finding things — policies, protocols, outreach mechanisms, messaging, etc.

HREN: Sustainability of remote work is something many have expressed a concern about. There seems to be a perception that levels of productivity will fall off for employees who are new to remote work once they get used to it. What advice do you have for companies who have that concern? How do they go about ensuring productivity levels are sustained as remote work becomes the new normal?

DM: If you needed to micromanage your team in the office to ensure high productivity, you were already looking at systemic underlying issues. Dozens of university studies have found that remote employees are more productive than in-office counterparts, largely due to a massive reduction in interruptions and healthier lifestyles due to not commuting. 

Ensuring that productivity remains high requires leadership to equip remote team members with the hardware and software necessary to do their jobs well. This includes an ergonomic workspace. It also requires intentionality on matters such as informal communication, and where work happens. 

Remote work is not traditional work which is simply conducted in a home office instead of a company office. There is a natural inclination for those who have not personally experienced remote work to assume that the core (or only) difference between in-office work and remote work is location (in-office vs. out-of-office). This is inaccurate, and if not recognized, can be damaging to the entire practice of working remotely.

HREN: When it comes to culture and building a remote team, how do you communicate that culture in a way that remote employees around the globe, regardless of the culture of the place they live, buy into it and become advocates of the company mission?

DM: In a remote setting, culture = values. Building a culture across a company where there are no offices requires intentionality. While technology and tools are enabling companies to operate efficiently in a remote setting, it's important to focus on documenting culture first, then using tools to support.

There should be no unwritten rules in remote culture. Intentional documentation is essential to avoiding dysfunction within a remote company, and this also applies to culture. 

It may sound counterintuitive, but there is great value in putting process and structure around culture. For example, if a company has an unlimited vacation policy, but has no suggestions or process around it, you may create a culture of fear with regard to taking time off.

It's important for leadership to set the tone, but it's even more important to document what will define your culture. Each time a scenario arises where there is no clearly defined answer, look to your company values to determine the answer, and then document.

Documentation is a shared benefit, and is something that should be embraced by all members of the organization. While it may feel inefficient to document nuances related to culture, creating good habits around this will ensure that culture is as strong in the future as it was in a company's infancy.

HREN: When it comes to the engagement and development of remote employees, what advice do you have for HR practitioners who may be somewhat new to approaching employees in a remote setting?

DM: Ask questions, assume positive intent, and empower your team. Every person learns differently, and every person has a different level of comfort with engagement and communication.

You can’t manage a remote team well, long-term, with command and control tactics. You have to learn to be a feedback-loving servant leader. Your role shifts to being a listener, dot connector, and unblocker, and the coaching element comes after you open up the door for feedback.

HREN: What are some of the challenges or opportunities that come from a remote onboarding? How do you ensure you’re setting up an employee for success in a remote environment?

DM: Onboarding remotely should focus on three key dimensions: the organizational, the technical, and the social. It’s also vital to set each new hire up with an onboarding buddy — a single, go-to person to connect dots and answer any questions as someone learns an organization.

Traditional in-person companies usually rely on trainers or more hands-on approaches to help new hires navigate their surroundings. All-remote companies have to be more efficient and make information easily accessible, so documentation will be essential for a smooth onboarding process. At GitLab, we provide a detailed handbook that is always evolving.